The Vine & The Monk
Viticulture and winemaking have been practiced for thousands of years, witnessing history at its different stages. During and after Middle Age though, an interesting role in preserving and sharing wine knowledge has been played by monks and missionaries.
In different ways and for different reasons, between the 16th and 18th century religion has somehow crossed paths with viticulture, helping the industry to be shaped around techniques and rules we can still observe today.
The Monks of Burgundy
Viticulture in Burgundy is typically associated to the work of Benedictine Monks, in particular the Cistercian and the Cluniac Order. The latter, named after the Abbey of Cluny, were major landowners on the Côte Chalonnaise and the Mâcon region. Originally, the monks practiced viticulture to produce the wine necessary for the celebration of mass. But then, gradually, they developed and mastered the art of growing. By improving both quality and yields, some of their wines become suitable for selling and, by the 15th century, their quality started to get recognised more and more across Europe. At that stage, reputation became an asset protect as well, with each abbey and monastery making sure to keep the highest quality standards in order to protect their status.
One of the reasons behind the monks’ success in viticulture was their non-profit approach: in fact, since they were not cultivating the land for immediate heirs or to earn money, monks could dedicate significant time to research, hence studying, learning and understanding the art of winemaking, then experimenting and developing the skills and know-how needed to get the most of their vineyards.
A result of this approach was the development of two key concepts, such as “climats” and “clos”.
“Climats” are precise plots of land, marked out according to soil’s and local climate features. Each plot might produce wines of very different character, carefully classified by the monks depending on their quality: it’s the typical Burgundy’s scenario we can find nowadays, a jigsaw of thousands of different climats: often so close and, at the same time, so different as well.
“Clos” are climats surrounded by walls: they were built by the monks to protect the vines from the animals. The clos shaped the landscape of Burgundy wine region and some of them are still standing today. They are also a representation of continuity of local tradition: between the Middle Ages and the Revolution, some of the clos had one or two owners only, a scenario that quickly changed after Napoleon’s inheritance laws.
But crucially, in the Middle Ages the role of the monks was absolutely key to maintain winemaking knowledge and skills during a turbulent period characterised by war and instability.
Dom Pérignon Legacy
In Champagne, it was the Benedictine monk Dom Pierre Pérignon that introduced several viticulture and winemaking techniques in the 17th century. He applied limitations to the vine’s height, develop significant improvements in picking techniques to preserve the soil in the vineyards and reviewed the pressing habits to increase quality and efficiency, avoiding skin contact to achieve the whiter hue that we know today.
To this regard, Dom Pérignon dictated that fine wine should only be made from Pinot noir. The reason behind the rule was the tendency of white grapes to enter re-fermentation, a big issue back in those days as the production of carbon dioxide inside the bottles was a hazard to employees and production in general. In fact, in the best case scenario the process caused corks to pop and, worse, the bottle to explode and to start a chain reaction, with nearby bottles breaking from the shock of the first explosion.
Under the stewardship of Dom Pérignon, the Abbey at Hautvillers flourished and doubled the size of its vineyard holdings. He also worked to improve their product with the help of Dom Thierry Ruinart, a noted scholar of the abbey, whose nephew Nicolas, in 1729, founded the champagne house of Ruinart.
LVMH owned champagne house Dom Pérignon is named after the Benedictine monk.
Chateauneuf du Pape
Rhone is probably the example of even the Pope being involved in winemaking. After becoming pope in 1305, Frenchman Clement V refused to move to Rome, instead moving the papacy to Avignon, in Southern Rhone, where it stayed for the next 67 years. This is where the most famous region and wine style in Rhone, Chateauneuf du Pape, got its name and started its legacy.
New World’s Missionaries
In Argentina, the original input to winemaking was mainly due to Catholic priests’ needing to create a wine supply for the celebration of holy masses in the 16th century. For that, they planted vineyards in close proximity to their monasteries. In the same years, missionaries and settlers laid down the basic infrastructures for irrigation.
And missionaries had a significant role in California as well. While the region was being colonised in the 1700s, Spanish missionaries would plant vineyards near every mission they founded, as the wine they made was used for religious services. These very first grapes were brought to California from Mexico, which themselves were descendants of grapes from Spain, brought to the country by the conquistador Hernan Cortes in 1520.
Still Spanish conquistadores had a role alongside missionaries in Chile: wine was first brought to the Country in the 1500s, most likely from vineyards in Peru, which at that time were already well established.
The last wine region encouraged by the work of Roman Catholic missionaries is New Zealand. They brought grape vines to Hawkes Bay in the 1850s, establishing the country’s oldest existing vineyard, now known as the Mission Estate Winery.
Despite today we only know few of the names of those helping preserving and sharing wine knowledge, there has been a very consistent effort across the religious community throughout the years between Middle and Modern Age.
And to them, despite our faith or beliefs, goes our most sincere thanks.